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It’s Time to End the Sad Saga of Silt-Clogged Matilija Dam

Kit Stolz lives in Upper Ojai

Ventura County has not had great luck with dams. Not only did we suffer a huge loss of lives and property along the Santa Clara River from the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in March 1928 but Matilija Dam near Ojai has failed miserably to live up to the projections of its backers.

According to Frederico Barajas of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the dam’s reservoir will be fully choked with sediment by the end of this decade, rendering it useless against a flood. With a few more wet winters like the one just passed, the dam’s usefulness could be gone even sooner.

Last month the muddy creek overflowed the dam at an estimated 7,500 cubic feet per second. The marvelous thing about such floods is the way they refresh and remake the creek beds.

To see Matilija Creek after this spring cleaning, I strolled out to look at the battered dam and its nearly filled-in reservoir. After 25 inches of rain, the skies were clear, the hills smudged with the fresh growth of spring and the willows a haze of soaring green bud wood. Despite the smothering growth of the monstrous weed arundo donax at its muddy edges, the stream was clear and cobbled and sparkling in the sun.

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The history of Matilija Dam has been well documented, both in an evaluation prepared for Ventura County in 1999 and by Ventura native and river advocate Ed Henke. Both show that experts in the field--including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers--were united against the dam from the start.

California’s Department of Fish and Game feared that the dam would imperil the thousands of steelhead trout that once surged up the river each spring, so thick that Supervisor John Flynn recalls them bumping against his legs as he waded in the water as a boy. The dam did not even include a fish ladder in its original design and attempts to add one were not successful, one reason why steelhead are now endangered species.

The California Division of Water Resources doubted that the dam would, as promoted, produce much water for Ojai residents and farmers. In fact the dam holds less than half the 1,900 acre-feet that advocates estimated it would. Because of rapid sedimentation from steep Matilija Creek, in a few years it will produce no water at all.

The 1944 bond proposal estimated it would cost $682,000 to construct Matilija Dam; 20 years later, after cost overruns, lawsuits, fines and an emergency surgery to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure, an engineering journal estimated the total cost of the dam at $4 million.

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Before its construction, Ventura architect Harold Burket predicted in testimony before the Ventura County Board of Supervisors that the planned use in construction of alkali aggregate from the Santa Clara River Valley would react badly with concrete in the dam. Twelve years after the reservoir was full, a safety inspection by Bechtel Corp. showed internal swelling, external cracking, disintegration of the wall and movement of the abutments. After the county’s insurance was canceled, county officials asked how much it would cost to remove the flawed edifice: $300,000 to $350,000, said Bechtel.

That was too much for the county at the time. But 36 years later, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal Interior Department, the county Flood Control District, the Friends of the Ventura River, the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and numerous others have allied in an attempt to bring down the dam and restore the river.

No one knows how much it will cost, but Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) sponsored a bill that designated $100,000 to research options for removal and, with little apparent opposition, the politically mixed Board of Supervisors has joined the effort.

This is plain common sense. After Matilija Dam was constructed, responsibility for maintenance and operation was turned over to the Casitas Water District on a long-term lease. That lease will expire this decade, returning responsibility to the county. Not only is Matilija Dam an enormous white elephant, it’s a white elephant soon to expire--in desperate need of a proper burial.

Last fall, Bruce Babbitt, then Interior secretary, flew out from Washington to ceremonially cut into the dam. This thin notch marks it as the nation’s largest dam yet to be slated for destruction--or, euphemistically, decommissioning.

“You are at ground zero of the dam decommissioning movement,” Jim Edmondson of California Trout told me. “The most enlightened, the most progressive--it’s really inspiring.”

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The reasons for removing the dam are primarily environmental. Take away Matilija Dam and it’s believed that eroding beaches will be replenished naturally with sand from upstream. What’s more, given half a chance the fish will return to the river and the creek.

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Yet when Henke first addressed Supervisors on the subject in 1998, he didn’t begin by speaking of fish or sand. He spoke about the Ventura of the 1930s and ‘40s when he was growing up, a place where everyone from newly arrived Portuguese immigrants to the police chief would go down to the river to fish, to play and to see the steelhead run.

Henke says he knows that times have changed, but he wonders if life is better now, and he can’t help but connect the loss of the healthy river with a community that seems to lack a center. He misses the fish and he misses the rise and fall of the wild river, and he misses the country he found in the city that once was Ventura.

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CalTrout’s Edmondson links Ventura County’s willingness to restore the river to the anti-sprawl sentiments reflected in the passage of the Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiatives. Both show how much county residents care about their remaining natural surroundings.

SOAR activist and now Supervisor Steve Bennett argues that we are engaged in a grand experiment to see if we can do it differently than they do in Los Angeles.

That caring for the wilds was apparent on the rainy Sunday morning when the volunteer “stream team,” led by Ventura County Surfrider chapter Chairman Paul Jenkin, turned out to test the water. The effort was partially funded by the Bureau of Reclamation, with water testing equipment donated by the county. Still, someone had to wade out into the mud and cold water. On that first weekend, so many volunteers signed up to help that Jenkin feared he might have to think about crowd control.

Can we imagine a better future for Ventura County and its river? That is the question. If early support for removal of the dam and restoration of the river are any guide, we can.

Perhaps it’s this sort of country-in-the-city vision that distinguishes Ventura County from of its neighbors.

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“Man is a part of nature,” wrote Rachel Carson, “and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” Perhaps we have learned from our losses that we are better off at peace with our rivers and streams instead of trying to entomb them in concrete.

Supervisor Flynn, who like Henke grew up not far from Ventura Avenue, speaks wistfully of the wild river and the Avenue area before the freeway. He has no illusions that it will be easy to remove the dam but insists that “unless you have an ideal, some kind of a dream, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

I stand on the road, the green canyon behind me, and look out over the sparkling water and think how lovely Matilija Canyon must have been before the dam, especially in the spring.

What a lovely valley this will be again.


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